Everything is not a hammer: How new tools can make sense out of streaming data

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students using new tools to understand streaming dataLast May, I switched professional gears. I accepted a position as a faculty member at the ASU W. P. Carey School of Business.

For many reasons, I am enjoying the job. Regularly interacting with intelligent and accomplished colleagues fulfills me. Next, I've been called worse things than professor in my life. On a different level, a steady paycheck comforts me, especially since the world today is beyond chaotic.

Perhaps best of all is my students' overall thirst for knowledge, especially in my analytics course and on their capstone projects. This translates into a general willingness to experiment with different tools, technologies and data sources. (ASU has procured licenses to many different software applications, including some from SAS.)

The benefits of openness and open-mindedness

Put differently, the vast majority of my students are not stuck in their ways. Unlike many experienced professionals, they don't rely exclusively on one tool (typically Microsoft Excel) to accomplish all of their data-oriented tasks. Eager to learn, they play with many of the tools and techniques that I recommend. Last semester, a few über-curious ones even brought new ones to me. (Needless to say, I was proud.)

This exploratory mind-set is essential for several reasons – and not just for students. First, old stalwarts tend not to play nicely with new types and data sources. (Here, I'm talking about unstructured and streaming data.) Second, although one can easily find new uses for old tools, consider the following questions:

  • Are new applications better at handling these new data types and sources?
  • Along these lines, are those new applications likely to find things that the old ones miss?

In many cases, the answer to these questions is yes, but don't take my word for it. As Nicolas Robert writes on this site, SAS Event Stream Processing allows for quick analysis of streaming data via a range of application programming interfaces (APIs). The example below shows real-time Twitter data:

Twitter data via SAS Event Stream Processing

As the above example illustrates, clear and compelling visualizations make it easy for users to garner a quick understanding of streaming data – not simply a snapshot. Can tried-and-true applications such as Microsoft Excel and Access offer this level of insight? I just don't see how this is possible with even Twitter, never mind mind-boggling data sources such as those that the internet of things will produce.

Simon says: If you only know how to use a hammer, then everything is a nail.

Look, I get it. Everyone's busy these days and we're just plain comfortable using familiar applications. Who has time to learn new ones?

Still, if you're reading this, it's likely that your current position will not be your last. Why not invest the time and effort to learn a new, arguably more powerful application? Why not increase your skills and market value? Why not learn new ways of doing things? Streaming and unstructured data aren't going anywhere.

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He is a full-time faculty member Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems). He also runs 5marbles, an Agile software-development shop.

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